Channel hop

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 April, 2009, 12:00am

For those with wanderlust, the bug bites the hardest now, in spring. There's nothing like a balmy breeze and the warm sun to make you want to get out and hit the open road. Alas, few of us can just up and leave our jobs, our pets - our televisions. For many, watching travel shows can be a form of self-torture. It doesn't matter whether the host is likeable or not, you can't help but feel that someone up there made a big mistake, that it is your life that lucky git is living.

And so, it is with great trepidation, that we introduce Spain ... On the Road Again (Asian Food Channel; Tuesdays at 8pm), a visually stunning, 13-part food and travel series that will pour the salt right into those open wounds and rub it around for good measure. Hollywood star Gwyneth Paltrow, acclaimed chef Mario Batali of New York restaurant Babbo, New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman and Spanish actress Claudia Bassols eat and drink their way across Spain, driving between 30 cities in Mercedes convertibles.

The journey begins in Madrid, at celebrity hotspot Casa Lucio, where the foursome talk about their personal connections to the country. Pals Paltrow (who Batali calls 'GP') and Batali (who Paltrow calls 'Batals') spent some of their younger years in Spain; they both fell in love with the place and learned, in Batali's words, 'how to eat and drink' there. Bittman (whose rather girlish nickname on the show is 'Bitty') draws on his gastronomic expertise and his previous excursions to Spain to enrich everyone's 'foodie' knowledge. Bassols rounds up the team and does her best to keep the three Americans in check throughout the trip through her homeland.

Cameo appearances by Frank Gehry, the architect behind Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum, and rock band REM's Michael Stipe spice up the group's exploration of the history, architecture and culture of Spain, from Andalucia to Zaragoza.

The beauty of the Spanish landscape needs no introduction but the unscripted, none-too-serious dialogue and cooking sessions only reinforce the fact the undeservedly lucky quartet are having way too much fun. A bitter critic would say they were less interested in making a travel show than in soaking up the sights, tastes and sounds for themselves. A few things you do learn, though, are that: Paltrow speaks fluent Spanish and has a seriously competitive streak; Batali can eat his weight in pig products; and Bittman is as comfortable hitting the gas in a Mercedes as he is talking about the carbon footprint of commercial cattle farming.

Turning his back on western Europe, another adventurer dubs its eastern counterpart Michael Palin's New Europe (TVB Pearl; Tuesdays at 8.30pm). Palin (pictured) begins his exploration of Eastern Europe in the Balkan region, where he meets a number of passionate, vocal characters who seem all the more lusty beside the understated Palin. In Sarajevo, he asks filmmaker Ademir Kenovic whether there was a great amount of public frustration over the Bosnian war of the early 1990s, to which Kenovic responds, 'I understand that, being British, you are using these mild words such as 'frustrated', but it was more than outrageous. We couldn't believe the idiots and maniacs destroying people and all that was good about this place.'

Nice one, Palin.